Friday, March 5, 2010

BACKPACKER's gear guide as a guilty pleasure

"Yeah, but those [packs] are made for people who carry f***ing frying pans" - my fiancee's comment as to the packs highlighted by BACKPACKER's annual gear guide

That said, BACKPACKER's annual Gear Guide is a guilty pleasure for me.

I love it because of it nails its perceived purpose so well: it is a compilation of gear of all types, with data on each and spotlight reviews on selected products (more on these in a moment). It is information based on empirical testing. And I have no doubt they beat the crud out of the stuff they test. (Sometimes, they go way, way too far and impose unrealistic expectations on hikers.)

Two sections are most important to me: packs and tents (shelters). I generally ignore shoes because I believe they are so fit-dependent. I also focus less on bags because I have two bags I never intend to replace, and down fill and shell materials can only get so good. Also, last time I checked Western Mountaineering and Feathered Friends (along with Valandre and Integral Designs, and to a lesser extent, Marmot), build the best bags out there, or at least have the best reputations. There are others, too.

BACKPACKER did many things particularly well this year. In no particular order, they first included a listing of all of the Editor's Choice winners from 1993 to 2010 (all 193 of them) and ranked them for their longitivity. Their rankings were, from worst to first, "Seemed Smart at the time," "Casualty of bad sales or better design," "Gone, but not forgotten," "Thank god for eBay and Craigslist," "Still around but competitors have caught up," and "Still high on staff gift registry." I'm a big fan of the first and fourth.

Second, they put together a list of stuff that just lasts. A brief perusal of the list reveals some time-honored favorites from some of the most reputable companies out there: MSR XGK (now XGK-EX); Thermarest Z-rest pads; Patagonia Capilene and Regulator fabrics (which includes the R1 Hoody); a Western Mountaineering bag; and a Feathered Friends jacket. I'm a huge fan of this pull-out section because it demonstrates that buying gear that lasts is more important that constant upgrading and replacing when the latest and greatest comes out. And this cuts directly against the consumerism that is promoted on the surface of the Guide.

Finally, BACKPACKER included mini reviews in their database listing. This is an excellent way to add more information to their guide for items that do not necessarily warrant a spotlight review while keeping space to a premium.

However, each year, I have strong disagreements with the highlighted choices, particularly in the lightweight categories. Items are too heavy, too overbuilt, etc.

So lets start with the packs. From an initial standpoint, I disagree with dividing packs into daypacks, weekend packs, and weeklong packs. I disagree because when your distance goes up, the only thing that should change in your pack is food and fuel i.e. consumables. You shouldn't need to carry more clothes, or extra stuff that would fill up a 5,248 cubic inch pack (Here's looking at you Arc'teryx Altra). And necessarily, the packweight goes sky-high. Take the Altra again, which weighs in a a hefty 5 lbs. Other heavyweight winners: REI XT 85/75 and the Osprey Aether 70 (4 lb. 15 oz in medium).

Also, look a the testers carried loads in equal to or in excess of 40 lbs (Black Diamond Infinity 60 p. 64), 50 lbs (Altra, p. 64) or heavier (50-70 lbs, p. 66). The biggest load carried by a tester was 72 lbs. I would like to know what that person was carrying that it added up to that much weight. I also wondered how far they got with it. What is in these monstrous loads that pushes them that high? Are they carrying full-on winter gear or going three weeks without resupply? If not, then they are just reinforcing an idea that if you carry a bigger pack, you can and should carry big loads. It's a vicious cycle, too: carry a heavy tent and you need a heavy pack that can carry it, and then you need heavy boots to help support you ankles. And because you have all that space in the pack, you should just fill it up, too. Also, a tent shelf? Seriously Arc'yeryx. It's about the worst place to put something that dense because it will move the center of gravity of your pack (and you, too) down and behind you. (Lightweight Backpacking and Camping, Beartooth Mountain Press, 2006, Jordan, ed., p. 56-58) This forces you to lean forward more to compensate, otherwise you would fall over. (See Anatomy of a Gear Review, p. 9.)

And the ironic thing is that on the bottom of the Altra entry (outside the Editor's Choice awards section) is an interesting little tip: "Make your own ultralight pack. Trim too-long straps and cut off doodads you don't use; ditch the top kid and framestays." Ha! You can only cut out so much weight from cutting straps. I've cut two ounces off my Vapor Trail, which has notoriously long straps. But the pack itself still weighs in at 34 oz and change. The real weight is in the padding, frame and the fabric.

Another ironic statement, this time coming from the tent section (but applicable to the packs section, too): "Don't be seduced by 'Everest-ready' gear or features you don't use. Buy less expensive - and lighter - products made for what you really do." My argument goes as such: unless you're seriously hard on your gear (enter mountaineers, off-trail bushwackers, and others - you know who you are), you don't need the bombproof fabrics presented on these packs, or at least not all over the place. For example, I'm glad my Vapor Trail has a heavyweight Cordura fabric on the bottom, but it's even better that silnylon is used for the majority of the pack.

But enough about packs. Let's talk about shelters. I'd like to reiterate the "Everest-ready" statement, above. Here's what it means for tents: unless you're facing heavy snowloads, gale-force winds or other worst-case scenario situations, you don't need a tent designed for such. If you do, you know who you are.

Onto the critique: the winner for a "Roomy Ultralight" is a 47 oz, $350 shelter, the NEMO Meta 2P. This is not ultralight by any means. The TarpTent DoubleRainbow weigh in at less than this, plus it has vertical walls and is cheaper. The Meta 2P looks like a Black Diamond Betalight with a bug netting insert. The Meta 2P earned an Editor's choice, so the BACKPACKER eds. must like it, but I criticize their categorization.

Other two person shelters are variations on a two-pole dome tent design: Sierra Designs LT Strike 2 and Zolo 3, Kelty Gunnison Pro, Mountain Hardwear Skyledge 2 and Drifter 3, REI Cirque ASL 2. I could include the Hilleberg Jannu in this category also, but it has an additional pole above the door and Hilleberg is outside the category of the others (bonus points for being successfully used on a Seven Summits attempt).

Another issue: neither tarps nor floorless shelters were given spotlight reviews. The past year or so has been highlighted by the expansion of cuben fiber as a tarp fabric, and it was not presented in the gear guide. As for floorless selters, the Marmot Haven 2P looks like a floorless shelter, but its floor is removable. But there are no other shelters that lack a floor. What gives?

But I digress. If BACKPACKER knows their audience, and this is what their audience wants to read, then let them sell it. I'll continue to carry a 3 oz silnylon rucksack and like it.


Chris Wallace said...

Hmm...I've been known to carry a fry pan on shorter trips. Easiest way to cook real food. Of course it's around 6 oz and goes in my Ohm.

Robin said...

Great review of the magazine! I agree completely. Why is Backpacker mag like this? Not because "BACKPACKER knows their audience" it is because BACKPACKER knows their ADVERTISERS! I think they just want to survive in the market, the Ultralight market just doesn't pay the bills.

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Chris Sussman said...

Great reading -- totally agree on your Backpaker analysis. I am a Squall 2 tarptent owner and I am thinking of upgrading to the Rainbow 2 and I'm very interested in your thoughts. Sounds like you are very happy with it --- sometimes I worry about the overall durability of the Tarptents, but the form, function and weight seem tough to beat. Was reading a review that criticized quality of construction after they found holes between their bug netting and tent fabric and also said it was difficult to use the trekking pole/free standing set up. Any thoughts?

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